The 2017 Spirit Growth Brands: The Top Bottles And Trends

With hundreds of new product introductions hitting the market each year, how can members of the trade make sense of which products to stock, which to drop and which to watch? This year’s list of 136 Growth Brands in wine and spirits are a good place to start (wine winners were posted last week), as these brands have all managed to stand out in a crowded industry and attract consumers’ attention.

The Beverage Information & Insights Group (Beverage Dynamics’ parent company) determined this year’s winners using the following criteria, based on brands’ projected case sales for the 2016 calendar year:

  • Rising Stars are less than five years old and have exhibited growth during each year of their existence, reaching at least 20,000 nine-liter cases sold in 2016.
  • Fast Track Brands have exceeded 100,000 nine-liter cases, with double-digit growth in each of the last four years. All Fast Track Brands are at least five years old.
  • Established Growth Brands are top sellers in their category, moving a minimum of 400,000 nine-liter cases in 2016. They have each grown in sales over each of the past four years.
  • Comeback Brands are previous winners that have rebounded in sales to at least their previous winning level, following a recent decline.

The spirits industry continued two decades of consistent growth in 2016, gaining 1.9%. Increased sales of whiskey and tequila are more than enough to offset slowed growth in vodka and declines in gin and rum sales.

This year’s list of Growth Brands spirits winners includes 55 brands across four categories: Rising Stars, Fast Track Brands, Established Growth Brands and Comeback Brands. Topping the list are whiskeys (16) and tequilas (14), which outpace all other categories for most winners.

The highest-selling spirits on our list are Jim Beam, Svedka, Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Hennessy, which each sold more than 3 million cases in 2016. And among suppliers, Heaven Hill took home the most Growth Brands with 9, earning it our 2017 Growth Brands Supplier of the Year – Spirits.

How did these 55 winning brands achieve sustained growth? The answers are varied, but include activation programs, expanded distribution, line extensions and just hitting the right consumer trends at the right time.

Established Whiskeys

The American whiskey category was the fastest-growing among spirits in 2016, rising 5.6% according to preliminary figures. Consumers are still embracing brown spirits, drawn to new expressions, styles and brands. “The bourbon boom is real,” says Jim Beam senior brand manager Susan Gibbons. “As Millennials continue to search for new and unique tastes, dark spirits as a whole will continue to grow. Their tastes are becoming more sophisticated, and brands are learning to adapt to that with products that stand out from the pack.”

Established Growth Brand Jim Beam rose 5.6% to more than 4.5 million cases sold in 2016, due in part to its sampling programs on- and off-premise.

“Shoppers were invited to pull up a stool to the Jim Beam Bourbon bar, where samplers would engage consumers to learn about the occasion they were shopping for and make a recommendation to complement their activity,” Gibbons says. “On-premise, we sampled thousands of consumers through blind taste tests, resulting in positive engagement and a 62% higher sales conversion rate.”

Established Growth Brand Maker’s Mark also credits the bourbon boom for its 5.1% increase to more than 1.5 million cases sold in 2016.

“Our mission is to ensure the consumer interest in bourbon is not treated like a fad or a trend, but as an opportunity to share our long-time passion for making great-tasting whiskey and invite today’s drinkers to become long-term brand fans,” says senior brand manager Stephanie Kang. “While cocktail culture remains top-of-mind with a revived interest in classic cocktails, we also see consumers looking to enjoy the flavors and complexity of premium bourbons.”

On-premise, Maker’s Mark rolled out the Private Select program, a barrel program that finished Maker’s Mark in additional nine weeks in a single barrel that includes an outlet’s custom selection of oak finishing staves. 

The brand also introduced several limited edition bottlings off-premise, including the American Pharoah bottle made for the Triple Crown winner, a holiday co-pack and a tri-pack for the election season. 

“There are three underlying consumer trends within the industry that are influencing the renewed growth of American whiskey, particularly at the premium end,” says Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris. “Foodie culture, retro revival and the artisanal and craft boom.”

Fast Track Brand Woodford Reserve and its Rising Star sibling, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, were both winners this year. Morris credits the brand’s success to outreach to the trade and consumers during 2016.

“We’ve seen opportunities for our fans to share their love of the brand through the creation of personalized labels and engraved bottles,” he says. “And with nearly 700 entries nationwide in the Manhattan Experience cocktail competition, we’ve offered bartenders an opportunity to showcase creativity and sophisticated skills through uniquely crafted cocktails.”

Woodford Reserve plans to continue its longstanding partnership with the Kentucky Derby, which has made the brand its official bourbon for nearly two decades.

Imported Whiskeys Show Strength

Like its domestic counterpart, the imported whiskey category was strong in 2016, growing 4.2% to just over 29 million cases. While large brands still dominate, new flavors and expressions have taken off in recent years, and suppliers are investing in new distilleries overseas to keep up with increased demand.

“The growing trend of Scotch whisky cocktails and consumer interest in the whiskey category more broadly have provided us an opportunity to engage with new consumers and the broader bartender community,” says Monkey Shoulder brand manager, RJ Whittington. Rising Star Monkey Shoulder rose 37.5% in sales last year to 44,000 cases.

Fellow Scotch Buchanan’s is an Established Growth Brand, selling 480,000 cases in 2016. The Diageo brand credits its smoky flavor profile and a rising interest in craft cocktails for its success. Buchanan’s expanded its “Deja Tu Marca” customized bottle program in 2016, and began offering small-format bottles off-premise, which led to sales growth in urban markets. The brand will continue its focus on the Latin culture in 2017, partnering with superstar J. Balvin and sponsoring the Billboard Latin Music Awards.

Established Growth Brand Johnnie Walker Red grew 3.0% in 2016 to more than 750,000 cases sold. Its growth was assisted by the brand’s Keep Walking American campaign, which celebrates America’s cultural progress and rich diversity. 

An on-premise extension of that campaign, Flavors of America, launched in 2016 and is led by mixologist Gabe Orta. Miami-based Orta oversees 10 bartenders in local markets who develop a range of cocktails inspired by authentic local flavors and their individual cultural backgrounds.

Much of the growth in the Canadian Whisky category can be attributed to Diageo’s Crown Royal, especially its wildly popular Regal Apple flavor. The Established Growth Brand grew 5.7% last year, surpassing 5 million cases sold for the first time. Crown Royal launched a new vanilla flavor in 2016 and partnered with comedian JB Smoove for a number of commercials and events. In the coming year, the brand plans to introduce limited-edition whiskeys to offer unique flavor profiles that meet the demands of whisky connoisseurs eager to experiment.

Irish whiskey category leader Jameson is also an Established Growth Brand this year, rising 16.3% to more than 2.8 million cases sold. Jameson Caskmates, which was created by Jameson’s Master of Whiskey Science Dave Quinn and micro-brewer Franciscan Well’s Head Brewer, Shane Long, has been embraced by bartenders and consumers. Caskmates is finished in craft beer barrels, and Jameson’s Drinking Buddies program closes the production loop, by offering beers finished in whiskey barrels.

Tequila Takes Off

There’s little doubt which category will follow whiskey as the next big consumer trend. Sales of tequila rose 5.0% in 2016, led by gains at the top of the pricing spectrum. The premiumization trend in spirits is serving tequila brands well, and they’re taking advantage of the attention by releasing quality products and sharing their unique stories with consumers.

“Consumers are hyper-focused on quality products and willing to pay more,” says Christine Moll, tequila category marketing director at Campari America. “The rapidly growing interest in craft cocktails has also positively impacted the tequila business, as bartenders get more creative and expose consumers to tequila beyond the margarita.”

Campari’s Espolon tequila is a Fast Track Brand for 2016 after selling 200,000 cases, a 37.9% increase over 2015. In the coming year, Espolon will launch a 1.75-liter bottle and continue its popular Black Market activation, which creates an immersive experience for consumers at select bars and cities.

Established Growth Brand Sauza is also a Hall of Fame winner this year, selling more than 2.2 million cases in 2016 and increasing sales by 7.2%.

“We’ve noticed that consumers’ drink-led occasions are becoming group-led, or social gatherings among friends,” says Malini Patel, vice president of tequila and innovation at Beam Suntory. “Tequila has also become a preferred spirit for mixologists, and as a result we’re seeing innovative new Margarita recipes that incorporate premium spirits.”

Ultra-premium tequila Avion is a Rising Star yet again, growing 10.6% to 146,000 cases in 2016. The Pernod Ricard brand recently began offering hand-selected barrels of Avion Reposado to on- and off-premise accounts, including a bespoke label and aging statement on each bottle. 

The brand also launched a new advertising campaign, Tequila Elevated to an Art, which showcases Avion’s Mexican roots and tells the story of its production in Jesus Maria, Mexico.

Pernod Ricard’s Olmeca Altos, also a Rising Star after growing an impressive 28% to 160,000 cases sold, continues to emphasize its creation by bartenders, for bartenders. The tequila in 2016 focused on cross-merchandising with pairing items, including fresh food and Tecate beer. In 2017, it will expand its Tahona Society program, which educates bartenders on the overall culture of tequila and modern Mexico.

Fellow Rising Star DeLeon tequila grew 25% and is a first-time winner after selling 20,000 cases in 2016. The Diageo brand partnered with Sean “Diddy” Combs on a number of fronts, including nightclub activations, a five-city market tour, point-of-sale offerings, samplings and live performances in select markets At the end of the partnership, DeLeon, Combs and Billboard launched the DeLeon 100 to celebrate cultural artists nationwide.

Vodka Inches Ahead

The largest spirits category—more than 73 million cases sold in 2016—continues to grow, albeit slowly. Sales rose 0.6% last year as flavor proliferation reached its apex. 

Imports and a handful of American-made vodkas are propping up sagging sales of flavored vodkas, as consumers explore other categories. 

“Consumer demand for great tasting spirit brands at an affordable price is a trend we’ve seen and benefitted from,” says Frank Polley, vice president of trade marketing for Tito’s Handmade Vodka. “There’s also a clear demand for unflavored vodka vs. flavored vodka, and we’re seeing more and more retailers shifting their shelf strategy to better align with the products consumers are looking for.”

Fast Track Brand Tito’s is consistently one of the fastest-growing brands on this list year after year, growing 37.4% in 2016 to 3.8 million cases sold. On-premise, Tito’s has focused on core cocktails, promoting the Tito’s American Mule and alternatives to classic cocktails like the Tito Rita. 

Off-premise, the brand has focused on programs like its Vodka for Dog People, which promoted fundraising efforts for animal welfare organizations. The VFDP activation led to a $150,000 donation to the ASPCA and was strongly supported by retailers nationwide.

Rising Star Devotion Vodka sold 23,000 cases in 2016, a 27.8% increase over the prior year. “The trend most impacting our sales right now has been a move toward healthier ingredients,” says chief operating officer Michael Calleja. “We’ve always been ahead of the curve with our high-quality ingredients, and we’re going the extra mile to make sure we meet the highest standards.”

Other Notable Winners

Three wine suppliers saw their spirits brands make our Growth Brands list this year, showcasing the diversity of their portfolios.

Rising Star Serpent’s Bite grew 40% last year, selling 35,000 cases and adding to the win total for Wine Supplier of the Year, Constellation Brands. The brand capitalized on the flavored whiskey trend, promoting its use on-premise as a shot and creating POS for retail that helped group it with other shot brands. Fellow Rising Star Brinley Gold Shipwreck, a rum from Opici Wines’ Market St. Spirits division, grew 20% last year to 24,000 cases. 

The brand was developed by a father-and-son team and has used a grass-roots tasting program off-premise to gain market share. Brinley Shipwreck will launch a new White Reserve expression in 2017. Its award reflects the response to the Brinley story and quality, says vice president of marketing Mike Wolff.

Rising Star Ron Barcelo is another rum from a well-known wine supplier, Shaw Ross International Importers. The brand grew 5.2% last year to 61,000 cases after expanding its on-premise distribution and visibility in 2016. “We executed a number of local cocktail programs focused on classics such as the Old Fashioned, Daiquiri, Rum Sour and Manhattan,” says vice president of marketing Rod Simmons. 

“We’ll continue that sampling activity in 2017 to increase consumer awareness and build on the popularity of mixology and craft cocktails, which has led to the growth of premium brown goods.”

Q&A with Hall of Famer and Comeback Brand Bombay Sapphire

Beverage Dynamics: What industry trends are most impacting sales of the brand right now?
Tom Swift, vice president brand managing director: We continue to see growth and interest in classic cocktails, many that feature gin. Bombay Sapphire has been well-positioned to capture this growth because of its versatility and the fact that it mixes so well in popular cocktails, like the Martini and Negroni.

BD: What programs in 2016 led to the brand’s success?
TS: On-premise, we’re very proud of the strong position Bombay Sapphire has among bartenders. We’ve invested in programs to educate the bartending community, such as the annual Most Imaginative Bartender Competition and Custom Tonic sessions.

Off-premise, we see tremendous opportunity to drive education on the versatility of cocktails that can be made with our gins. We’ve found one of the best ways to run a consumer education program is with bartenders leading consumers through an interactive, hands-on approach to create their own cocktails. That experience of discovery extends beyond cocktails.

BD: What do you have planned for 2017?
TS: Bombay Sapphire has a long history of supporting creativity and the arts. We’ll continue to build meaningful relationships with bartenders and push the boundaries of creativity in cocktails. Additionally, we’re thrilled to enter our eighth year of the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series program, a nationwide search to find the next big name in visual arts.

Q&A with Established Growth Brand Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey

Beverage Dynamics: What industry trends are most impacting sales right now?
Casey Nelson, brand director, JD Flavors: While many consumers are intrigued by the whiskey category, they are not quite ready for straight whiskey. Jack Honey allows consumers to get a taste of Jack Daniel’s in an approachable and easier-to-drink format. Flavored whiskeys in general play a role in whiskey recruitment, which has led to an increased pace of innovation.

BD: What marketing programs and activations in 2016 led to your success?
CN: On-premise, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey executed a number of programs like Neighborhood Flavor, which celebrates the pride we have in our communities, and Art, Beats + Lyrics, a traveling exhibition of local music, art and culture.

BD: What do you have planned for 2017 to build on the brand’s growth?
CN: We just announced an exciting partnership with the NBA. While Jack Daniel’s is the official marketing partner, Tennessee Honey will play a big role in celebrating and highlighting the influential culture of the NBA.

Hendrick’s Embraces Experimentation

Fast Track Brand Hendrick’s Gin sold 325,000 cases in 2016, a 12.8% increase over the prior year. Hendrick’s worked with brand ambassadors on-premise to influence the trade, educate them and delight them in the brand’s unusual world. And Hendrick’s isn’t afraid to try something new, given the brand’s reputation.

“The most important industry trend right now is experimentation,” says senior brand manager Darius Hines. “Our distillation process and the elements that have distinguished us from the start, such as essence of cucumber and rose, not only make us different but have attracted loyal drinkers around the world.”

The cocktail boom has translated positively for Hendrick’s, Hines adds, since gin is a crucial cocktail ingredient in bar programs far and wide.

Blue Chair Bay’s Island Lifestyle

Rising Star Blue Chair Bay Rum sold 81,000 cases in 2016 thanks to bar promotions, samplings, display programs and expanded distribution. And of course its marketing program.

“The team built three strong marketing programs to run throughout the year,” says marketing director Monica Papuga. “We understand our consumers enjoy being a part of Kenny Chesney’s island lifestyle. With the growth we’ve achieved each year, our team strives to repeat that success everyday.”

Remy Martin’s Comeback Leads to Hall of Fame Win

Remy Martin won its 15th Growth Brands Award this year as a Comeback brand, selling 825,000 nine-liter cases in 2016. Cognac is benefiting from the growth in brown spirits, as consumers seek spirits with depth and character.

The ultra-premium segment is showing sustained growth across categories, with Millennial drinkers developing a greater appreciation for quality, authenticity and heritage. Remy Martin, a family-owned brand since 1724, is known for its history, love of terroir and respect for time.

Part of the renewed interest in the brand is also due to bartenders and consumers rediscovering cocktails that were originally made with Cognac before Prohibition. The brand reports it’s seeing a growing interest in Cognac cocktails made with Remy Martin.

Jeremy Nedelka is editor of Beverage Dynamics. Reach him at jnedelka@epgmediallc.com

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